Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Novel By Oakley Hall Resurfaces After Sixty Years

Oakley Hall's So many Doors, first published in 1950, seems an odd choice for the Hard Case Crime series because, while there is a murder in the book, this is not by any means a crime novel in the traditional sense. It immediately reminded me of Understudy for Death, by Charles Willeford, an excellent crime novelist. But that particular Willeford book was not a crime novel either. Originally published as Understudy for Love, it was really a psychological study of the characters who populated the novel. Hard Case Crime published it for the first time in over fifty years, changing the title and clearly implying that it was one of Willeford's crime novels.

Like the Willeford book, So Many Doors is another "long lost manuscript," that's being republished for the first time in fifty or sixty years, It opens with a prologue in which we find a man named Jack Ward in jail for a murder to which he has confessed. When his court-appointed lawyer arrives, Jack refuses to cooperate and kicks the guy out, claiming that he's anxious to be punished for his crime and simply wants to get it over with. 

With that, the main story begins, told from the perspective of five different people, the last of which is Jack Ward. At the center of the story is a young woman named V, whom we first meet when she is seventeen. V. lives alone with her father on a struggling ranch near Bakersfield, California in the 1930s. Her mother has died years earlier and her father has done the best he can to raise V, but clearly he hasn't a clue as to how to go about it.

We we first meet V, she is a very attractive girl who is on the brink of becoming a woman that no man can resist. That includes an elderly and wealthy man named Denton who lives on the property that adjoins that of V's father. Denton likes to entertain V and gives her a valuable horse. He tells V's father that when the girl graduates from high school, he would like to pay for her college education. Ultimately, he would like to marry her. (Yeah; it's beyond creepy.)

Oddly V's father is not as upset about Denton's proposal as one might expect. It is the Depression; times are hard and V's prospects for the future are not all that great. Ultimately, marrying Denton might be a good thing for her, but it will have to be her choice. 

Shortly thereafter, V's father hires a bulldozer operator, Jack Ward, to clear some stumps from his property. Jack is young, virile, and very attractive, and the reader immediately understands what's about to happen. The story unfolds from that point, through the eyes of people who are clearly captivated by V, for better or for worse. 

This is, at heart, a story of star-crossed lovers that simply cannot end well. Reading the book is like watching some natural disaster unfold from which you simply can't avert your eyes. Parts of the book are fascinating, particularly the insights that it offers into lower-class life in the United States through the years of the Depression and World War II. The story is clearly dated, though, and Hall sometimes tries too hard to get into the heads of these characters. 

In the end, then, I have mixed feelings about the book. I don't regret having spent the time it took to read it, but I really didn't enjoy it as much as I would have liked. Most of all, though, I wish that the folks at Hard Case Crime would get back to their original mission of publishing excellent crime novels and leave books like this one in the dusty bins of antiquity where they probably best belong.

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